News: Federal Policy & Advocacy

House Education Committee Chair Shares Vision for Comprehensive Higher Ed Reform

Monday, February 11, 2019  
Posted by: Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy
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Last week, the leaders of the congressional education committees each had the opportunity to lay out their recommendations for reauthorization the Higher Education Act. HEA, as the legislation is sometimes called, is the law governing federal involvement in higher education, and it was last renewed in 2008.

During an event co-hosted by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) focused on three specific reform ideas. On the other hand, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) emphasized the need for a comprehensive approach to reauthorization that does more than make changes on the margins before he did a deeper dive on a few specific topics.

The congressman from Virginia cited the rising cost of tuition and lack of government investment as the key reasons degrees are becoming increasingly out of reach for students. These remarks were in contrast to Sen. Alexander’s comments, which – during this event and others – have focused on the fact that the average Pell Grant award is slightly higher than the average price of community college tuition. Sen. Alexander also commented that many public universities have affordable tuition.

Last year, Rep. Scott introduced the Aim Higher Act, which included a $500 increase to the maximum Pell Grant and a program to provide two free years of community college. Rep. Scott further elaborated during a question and answer portion that he believes a student should be able to work 15 hours per week and graduate debt-free.

Passing a comprehensive bipartisan HEA bill, such as the one promoted by Democrats, will require the two parties to agree on whether the main problem is college affordability or simply insufficient access to the existing federal resources designed to help students pursue higher education.

In addition to college affordability, Rep. Scott discussed several other areas that he believes must be included in a comprehensive review of the HEA. He suggested wraparound supports are needed for students, such as campus-based child care and transition services for veterans. He said he would also like to strengthen accreditation, have accreditors involved in helping to control the cost of college, monitor deregulation so it has a purpose and keeps protections, and improve campus safety.

Throughout his remarks, Rep. Scott used language focused on a big-picture overhaul of the bill, saying that working on the fringes or margins – where bipartisan agreement can more easily be found – should not be the goal of a bill that is only renewed once a decade. 

Sen. Alexander elaborated on the same three ideas he proposed earlier that week in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute: FAFSA simplification, automated income-based repayment for borrowers, and a program-level accountability system based on student loan repayment for all types of institutions.

NCAN will continue to monitor all developments related to HEA reauthorization and promote our top priorities, with FAFSA simplification and investment in the Pell Grant program leading the way.

(Official portrait via Rep. Bobby Scott's website.)